- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2000

Major dance projects gave Washington new artistic importance this year, and the city became a bellwether for American dance at the start of the new century.

The most important dance event here was the extraordinary celebration of the legacy of George Balanchine, surely the most important classical ballet choreographer of the 20th century and to many the most important of any century.

Charles and Stephanie Reinhart and the Kennedy Center did themselves proud with their years-in-the-planning Balanchine Celebration in September — two weeks of great dance performed by five American companies and members of the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow.

The occasion was grand, giving audiences the sheer pleasure of seeing so many genuine masterpieces in one fortnight. It also demonstrated the excellence of regional ballet companies in this country.

Stunning performances included Yuan Yuan Tan's nuanced presentation in the San Francisco Ballet's emotionally charged "Bugaku" and the Miami City Ballet's fearless dancing of "Agon." They were the highlights of this season, or any other.

The Bolshoi Ballet's dramatic performance of "Mozartiana," with Nina Ananiashvili in the Suzanne Farrell role; Miss Farrell's own fresh staging of "Divertimento No. 15"; and revitalized performances by the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago all added to the luster of the festival.

As arduous and expensive as the undertaking was, it still would be great to make this a biennial event. It was a tremendous boon to Washington dance lovers, who see only an occasional Balanchine ballet by visiting companies or the Washington Ballet but have to do without what once were annual visits by Balanchine's own company, the New York City Ballet.

Some of the groups at the festival were unhappy about sharing programs in light of the distance they had traveled and the strain of building their schedules around the festival's timing — genuine concerns that underscore their generosity in agreeing to the project. Perhaps another time, the more major companies could have full programs.

Whatever the details, the festival was an inspired idea, one that deserves an encore.

In addition to this celebration of a 20th-century ballet master, the Reinharts scheduled a celebration of the legacy of modern-dance masters Martha Graham and Paul Taylor.

Unfortunately, it did not work out. The non-appearance of the troubled Graham company became a major news event in itself, underscoring the fragility of our dance heritage. Because of a nasty dispute between Ron Protoas, Miss Graham's heir, and the Graham company, her works are not being performed and we are in imminent danger of losing one of our most precious 20th-century artifacts.

The disarray of the Graham legacy made the brilliant work of her artistic heirs all the more important. Mr. Taylor has created a body of work that is tremendous in scope. Still leading the pack, he is continuing into the new century with unabated originality and appeal. His company appeared here twice — in the spring and in the fall as the climax of what became a celebration of the Taylor legacy.

As a preamble and a postscript to his group's appearance, former Taylor dancers Twyla Tharp and David Parsons each presented their companies, and former Taylor dancer Lila York created a world premiere commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Washington Ballet.

Miss Tharp, a Taylor alumna, came with a new company of six dancers. Some of her work looked overly busy, but she was at her strongest in "Surfer at the River Styx," to a sensational score by Donald Knaack. He is a classically trained musician who uses hubcaps, frying pans and other non-instruments. The two protagonists in "Surfer" were brilliant: John Selya and Keith Roberts had roles of a lifetime and made the most of them.

Mr. Taylor himself continued to astound. His new "Fiends Angelical," seems a tailor-made description of a common theme in his dances, the juxtaposition of good and evil. No one can create more heavenly visions onstage than Mr. Taylor and no one has so tellingly exposed our vices and hypocrisies.

"Fiends Angelical," set to music by George Crumb, was riveting. The piece was part pagan ritual and part a tale of destruction and redemption. Mr. Taylor is out in uncharted territory, pushing his dancers into a primitive, ferociously demanding movement style. The always compelling Lisa Viola and Patrick Corbin were superhuman in a dance of strangulation. Santo Loquasto produced a transformation by clothing the performers in painted body suits and bushy wigs.

Another new Taylor ballet, "Cascade," found the choreographer at his lyrical best, spinning out wonderful group formations and poignant solos and duets.

Other works of his seen this season illustrate his extraordinary range — "Company B" to music of the Andrews Sisters; the massive, soaring texture of "Musical Offering" to the Bach score; the eccentric, driving energy of "Syzygy"; and his bracing version of "Le Sacre du Printemps," crammed with enough ideas and movement to fill 10 dances by a lesser artist.

Merce Cunningham, another former Graham dancer, brought his own brand of astringent clarity to the stage earlier in the season. His program included "Interscape (2000)," a world premiere commissioned by the Kennedy Center and made vivid by the 80-year-old Mr. Cunningham's still vernal and inventive movements, Robert Rauschenberg's boldly painted front curtain and backdrop and a score by the late John Cage.

The renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company, now in its 30th year, made a first-ever appearance at the Kennedy Center in the spring. It brought a stunningly beautiful "Canto/Pianto," inspired by Claudio Monteverdi's baroque music.

Miss Brown's opening scene is a masterful stroke of theater: A large glowing orb turns out to be a frame for a creature floating through space (courtesy of Flying by Foy), looking like a figure painted on a 17th-century rotunda. It also pedals softly through space, limbs bent in gentle Renaissance shapes, and tumbles in airy freewheeling somersaults and cartwheels.

The scene is sheer enchantment and, as we are reminded when the dancer plummets abruptly, not without its edge of daring. This extraordinary vision is followed by dancing of similar inspiration.

That power of dance to astound and confound us with vivid images was illustrated again this fall when the dance group Pilobolus appeared here in "Klezmer," a brilliant, mesmerizing work co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center. Pilobolus' athletic movement style never has been put to more eloquent use than in the mystical, magical, folk-tinged movements of a close-knit group swirling around the stage like a giant tumbleweed. The inspired dance was choreographed by Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken — and six dancers — to an original score by Frank London, performed live by the Klezmatics.

The venerable American Ballet Theatre appeared twice this year, both times jumping back over a century to show new versions of the Marius Petipa ballets "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." Both were new versions, re-choreographed and restaged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie.

In "Swan Lake," the look of the ballet enchants. Designer Zack Brown outdid himself with his handsome, spacious sets; the watery image of his front curtain; and the beautiful colors and designs of his sumptuous, exquisitely detailed costumes.

Mr. McKenzie staged the ballet at a crisp pace throughout. It moved from a swift climax of peasant dancing at the end of the first scene directly into the second act without intermission. Mr. McKenzie also paused to bring rich new details. He created new material for the Prince and gave his character more meaning. Most notably, he inserted a startling prologue: We saw Odette as the young maiden she once was being enticed by the dual aspects of Von Rothbart — one figure a naked, horned half-animal and the other an Iago-like figure of glittering malevolence.

His "Swan Lake" was a fresh and thoughtful retelling of a classic.

Not so with his "Nutcracker," which was overly busy and surprisingly unmusical. When Tchaikovsky soared, Mr. McKenzie plodded.

Septime Webre, in his first season as artistic director of the Washington Ballet, has galvanized the company with his high-energy ballets, striking staging and keen sense of showmanship.

He captured Cuban noise and high spirits in "Juanita y Alicia." He brought the same energy to "Carmina Burana," matching its florid style with spectacular performances and the 150-voice Cathedral Choral Society arrayed on high-risers onstage. His "Where the Wild Things Are" was a child's delight — a rambunctious telling of the familiar story with sets and costumes by author-artist Maurice Sendak.

The Washington Ballet's spring program was high on energy but thin in substance. An all-jazz, all-premieres fall program, again high on energy, also could have used more choreographic heft.

Still, a jazz ballet from that program — Trey McIntyre's "Blue Until June" — was a resounding hit when the Washington Ballet made a historic first appearance at the 17th Cuban International Ballet Festival in Havana in late October. It became the first major American ballet company to appear there in 40 years.

In addition to designing a series of sold-out performances, Mr. Webre brought along a cultural contingent of 130 dancers, choreographers, presenters, theater directors and arts patrons to interact with their Cuban counterparts.

Another high point of the Washington dance scene was the September kickoff by Dance Place of its 20th anniversary season. Much of the area's modern-dance creativity has been nurtured at Dance Place's classes and in its welcoming, intimate theater, presided over by its founder, Carla Perlo.

At one of its opening programs, the works created by the men and women who have contributed so much to the local dance scene were highlighted. The evening was strong proof of the variety and richness here.

Artists represented included Jan Van Dyke, the first to initiate local modern-dance seasons in Washington; Liz Lerman, whose humane work has a national audience; Maida Withers, the dynamic Washington dance matriarch; Cathy Paine, airborne on a trapeze; and Meriam Rosen, who has been making thoughtful, intense dances here for decades.

The men were outnumbered on this program, but what they lacked in quantity they made up in quality. Juan Carlos Rincones, Melvin Deal and Douglas Yeuell, director of Joy of Motion, each working in a different style, were all knockouts.

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